What you might notice

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The impact of cognition and learning difficulties on an individual depends on the extent and severity of the problems faced, but all will result in a child or young person not making the expected rate of progress in one or more curriculum area, and not achieving age-related expectations.

In addition to slow progress and low achievement – either in a specific curriculum area or more generally – these are some indicators of potential cognition and learning difficulties:


The impact of having difficulties with thinking and learning skills can cause individuals to experience a range of negative emotions, including embarrassment, guilt and frustration. This may lead to feelings of low self-worth and depression, which in turn can manifest in a variety of internalising (withdrawing) and/or externalising (acting out) ways. Low attendance or the emergence of emotionally-based school avoidance (EBSNA) can also be indicative of difficulties with cognition and learning.


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) commonly co-occurs with specific learning difficulties, and individuals with cognitive difficulties who do not have ADHD may still find it challenging to focus for the same duration – or to the same degree – as their classmates. Difficulties with concentration may link to pupils’ challenges with their short-term or working memory, which can mean that they are more easily ‘overloaded’ with information than their peers.

Off-task Behaviour

Individuals with learning difficulties may accidentally, or deliberately, engage in off-task or work-avoidant behaviours. Such behaviours may be internalised (for example, being a very withdrawn member of the class) or externalised (for example, being actively rude or defiant). This may relate to their difficulties with understanding, processing and/or remembering instructions and teaching points, and it might also link to their emotional response to experiencing work that is very challenging for them. The negative feelings from trying to engage with the work presented to them can be detrimental to their self-esteem, which can lead to pupils avoiding tasks because of low self-confidence and a desire to avoid further feelings of ‘failure’.

Low Resilience

Since pupils with cognition and learning difficulties may have become accustomed to finding schoolwork very challenging, this can lead to a state of ‘learned helplessness’ in which they instinctively rely on others for help – such as the support of a teaching assistant. This can mean that they feel they cannot succeed even when presented with activities that are within their ability level, and hence may be quick to ‘give up’ or resist making attempts in the first place.

Organisational Difficulties

Children and young people with specific or general learning difficulties can often find self-management and organisation challenging. This may be in evidence for individual activities (for example, having difficulty with planning an answer) or more broadly (for example, not bringing the correct clothing or equipment into school). They might also have difficulties with time management, such as routinely being late for classes or regularly missing homework deadlines.

In addition to the above, on its website the British Dyslexia Association provides ‘signs of dyslexia’ for adults to look out for, separated for Early Years, primary-age and secondary-age children.

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